Understanding the Modern Christian Funeral

Christians lean on the Bible for solace and lessons in life and in death.

Christians lean on the Bible for solace and lessons in life and in death.

If you were asked to attend a Christian funeral, what can you expect? Without going into the history of Christianity, a few notes about Christian funerals can provide basics for those who are not Christians. Even if you are Christian, you may be a Catholic and the deceased may have been a Baptist. You may realize, in this latter case, that the Christian burial for the deceased may be a new experience for you.

At the very base, all Christians believe in life after death, and they direct their lives to achieve eternal life in heaven. They believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that he came to earth to teach individuals through lessons and actions. These lessons, which are contained in the Christian Bible, also teach that a true believer in Jesus and the Christian faith will be forgiven for sins as a result of Jesus’ sacrifice and gain eternal life in Heaven.

Ideally, this lesson is the base for the Christian lifestyle, but it serves as the base for the Christian funeral as well. With that said, Christianity has splintered into many different religions and each one holds close its own interpretation of the Bible. While some religions may be more ritualistic, others may be more casual and others still may resemble each other in all but small details.

No matter the pattern of worship, the funeral service typically shares the same format and serve the same purpose across the board – to to pray for the soul of the deceased and to offer comfort and support to the bereaved.

For those who are not familiar with the Christian funeral, you can expect:

  • The service to be opened by a prayer or a statement made by a religious leader such as a priest or a minister, a pastor or preacher. This leader, in most cases, will set the tone of the funeral service by praying for the deceased, asking for prayers for the deceased and showing comfort for the family of the deceased.
  • Funeral guests are encouraged to join in with prayers, singing and may provide readings throughout the funeral service. Don’t worry if you don’t know the prayer or the song or reading. In many cases, the words are available in a hymnal, a prayer book or – in some larger churches – in a slide shown on a screen. Although words may be available, you do not need to participate. But, if the congregation is asked to stand or kneel for certain portions of the service, you might honor the deceased by following along.
  • Depending upon the religion, scriptures might be read by the religious leader or by a guest or family member. These readings often vary by religion.
  • Depending upon the religion, friends or family members may honor the deceased with a eulogy, a song or a poem.
  • The service usually ends with a prayer offered by the religious leader, who usually states that the service is over. Unless the service is a memorial service – where the body of the deceased is not present – or a service that does not include a burial (such as a service for a person who has donated a body to science), the religious leader may lead funeral guests to the graveyard.
  • Many times, religious funeral services are not held in the church or even in a funeral home. Some religious services may be held at the graveside. In this case, you still may expect basically the same format as listed above.

In most cases, the Christian funeral is somber, despite the joy that many Christians profess at the possibility of attaining eternal life. Dark-colored clothing is appropriate, and cell phones and recording devices normally are frowned upon. Beyond this, if you are asked to attend a ‘get-together’ or post-funeral wake, all bets are off. Even Christians who attend a wake after the funeral often do not know what to expect, as these gatherings usually are shaped by religion, by cultural preferences, by the manner of death and age of the deceased and by the mood and traditions set by the surviving family.

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